The AFL season is officially halfway done at the close of Round 11. Here’s my talking points from the week.
Brendon Bolton hangs by a thread
A club on the bottom of ladder doesn’t tend to enter too many matches as favourites, and this week was no different for the Carlton Blues. Still, with Essendon missing Devon Smith, Joe Daniher, Dylan Shiel and Jake Stringer, expectations were high that they could push for a win against their old rivals.
But, over the past three weeks clubs have unlocked the key to guaranteeing a win against Carlton: tag Patrick Cripps. If you can keep Cripps from having a major influence on the game, there’s pretty much no other way the Blues are going to get you.
Matt de Boer did a job on Cripps for GWS in Round 9 and kept him to 12 disposals and just one score involvement, while the Giants smashed the Blues by nearly three figures. Jack Steele’s efforts against him last week weren’t quite so restrictive, but Dylan Clarke kept the Carlton captain to 11 touches and two score involvements today, and again the Blues were woeful.
Carlton are averaging a so-so 73 points per game in matches where Cripps has at least 20 disposals so far this year… and their average score across the two games where he hasn’t hit that mark is 39, more than five goals worse. They might not win another game this year if opposition coaches continue to keep him in close check.
Certainly Carlton’s selection this week was baffling. I don’t fully agree with the decision to drop Dale Thomas – obviously the club feels the need to uphold elite standards, as they should, but there has to be a better way of doing this than tying an arm behind their backs in a game they could have won.
Even if the Blues felt there was no alternative but to make Thomas sit the game out, surely they could at least have not picked this week to ‘manage’ Kade Simpson? This is a side that is already severely lacking in veteran presence, and voluntarily gave up what little it had.
I’ve said before that I don’t feel Brendon Bolton’s job should be under question – given the list management path the club decided to go down, the Blues have no logical reason to expect themselves to be in any better position than the one where they currently find themselves. Still, it seems increasingly likely.
Hastening everything is North Melbourne’s decision to part ways with Brad Scott. They’ve got the inside track on looking for the AFL’s next senior coach, and if Carlton are seriously considering putting the senior job on the market, they may feel they need to act soon if they want to be in the race for the best prospects.
Rhyce Shaw could be North Melbourne’s answer
It has only been a week since Brad Scott stepped down from his role as coach of North Melbourne, but already the Kangaroos board would be making plans to procure a longterm replacement.
While ‘caretaker’ coaches such as Rhyce Shaw are rarely ever backed in for the permanent position, it may well be the case that North’s best option is already leading the club.
In most cases if a coach’s tenure ends abruptly mid-season it’s an indication that a larger change in the overall philosophy and direction of the football club is needed, one that can’t simply be achieved by elevating a member of the existing team.
The cautionary tale is that of Matthew Primus, who was given the permanent role at Port Adelaide after being a caretaker following the mid-season departure of Mike Williams. His time in the role proved disastrous, and he lasted less than two years.
However, Shaw himself is by no means a deeply embedded part of the Kangaroos coaching staff – he’s only been at the club seven months, and still arguably brings in an ‘outsider’ perspective.
Shaw has two strong arguements I would make in his favour.
The first is that, by all reports, he’s a great relationship-builder who has already developed a strong rapport with the playing group. That’s an essential skill in the modern AFL and not one that you always find in ‘old school’ coaches.
The second is that he has a clear desire to see North Melbourne play a more physical brand of football, which is the direction that for years I have privately felt the club needs to go in. The Roos have a lot of hard nuts, and should aim to be the hardest team in the league to play against – you’ll win a lot of games that way.
Of course there have been plenty of teams to be fired up by a change in coach only to flame out shortly afterwards, and there’d be no surprises if North follows the same pattern.
But Rhyce Shaw officially has our attention, and has another 11 games to prove he’s no flash in the pan.
Cats go two wins clear on top
Saturday afternoon proved a fruitful one for Geelong.
At the MCG, Collingwood found they had a fight on their hands when they hosted Fremantle – a bit too much of one, as it turns out. We’ll talk more about that result later, but the short version is that the Pies dropped their third game of the season, ending a seven-week winning streak.
Meanwhile, a little further south, Geelong were able to break one of the AFL’s stranger hoodoos, defeating Sydney for the first time in four years, a ground at which they don’t typically lose to, well, anybody.
The Cats were missing Gary Ablett through the first suspension of his long career, but a bag of four goals from Tom Hawkins and a starring effort by Patrick Dangerfield to gather 29 touches and kick two proved enough to give Geelong a win – as, given ladder positions, we expected it should.
That ladder position is now all the stronger because Geelong’s fellow top four sides have all slipped to 8-3 records for the year, while the Cats remain on top with 10-1, their only loss coming by less than a goal to the Giants.
They seem to be short-priced favourites now to take home the minor premiership – they don’t play any sides in the current top four again in the home-and-away season, and if they can navigate Richmond, Port Adelaide and Adelaide in their next three then they’ll have only one more match against a side currently in the eight – Brisbane in Round 22 – to follow.
Odds are they probably drop a game or maybe two somewhere, whether it’s to one of those sides or perhaps a dangerous one lower down the order like Fremantle or the Western Bulldogs, but it’s hard to see a scenario now in which they lose enough matches for anyone to be a serious shot at overtaking them.
If that turns out to be the case, expect the debate around home finals to get started up again! I’m sure we’ve all missed that one.
Michael Walters does it again
Getting to kick the winning score in an AFL game is something that plenty of kids dream about as the grow up, and yet even the vast majority of players who do make it to AFL for one reason or another are simply never fated to enjoy the opportunity.
Michael Walters has now done it in back to back weeks.
This was a huge result for Freo. It’s worth remembering this is a team who finished last season looking like something of a basket case, copping an almighty smackdown from Geelong late in the season and then sitting back to watch their crosstown rivals win the premiership.
Now the Dockers boast a 6-5 record and join Geelong and West Coast as the only three teams in the AFL to have beaten at least two sides in the current top four.
Of course when a result is so close, and for that matter unexpected, it’s natural that the mind is drawn back to decisions which seemed to shape the game, and goal mistakenly given to Walters – not the matchwinner, but one earlier on – has been the main talking point to come out of this one.
The AFL has admitted in the day that followed that the decision was wrong, saying that “due to technical reasons” the vision showing that the goal was touched was not available to the goal reviewer at the time of the decision.
That’s a pretty poor excuse when this happened at the most well-equipped ground in the country, using a system that the league has had years to fine-tune.
Of course Fremantle fans will point out that it was hardly the only controversial decision of the day and, to their credit, most Collingwood fans I’ve seen on social media have been happy to admit that it was the team’s overall poor performance – not a single goal review – which determined the result.
Let’s try not to let it distract too much from another incredible moment from an incredible player. Walters is having what should be an All Australian year.
Richmond are right to root out umpire abuse
Plenty of footy fans were furious this week to hear that Richmond have handed a three-game ban to a member of their cheer squad who was ejected from the MCG after referring to the umpire as a ‘green maggot’ during the club’s ANZAC Eve win in April.
The Herald Sun ran an article saying describing the fan as being banned by the ‘PC Police’, and social media responses to this sided heavily with the suspended fan, most crying that ‘political correctness’ has ‘gone mad’.
The whole thing is, from my perspective, a bit overblown. Any suggestion that the AFL intends to ban fans attending a match from vocally criticising the umpires is a bit paranoid – how would they even begin to police that?
A club’s cheersquad is an institution that represents that club, and they’ve got every right to ask them not to cross a line, and then penalise them if they do. Three matches on the sidelines is not the end of the world.
I don’t understand how anyone can feel like they should have a protected right to abuse without consequence a complete stranger for doing their job. On what grounds can you possibly justify that?
Umpires don’t deserve that kind of treatment and if it starts to make people think twice before they open their mouths, I’m all for it.
Everbody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (6-5) – After missing the entire 2018 season, Brad Crouch has played every game so far this year and is averaging more than 30 disposals. This week he had 29 and kicked three goals, including the winner. Great to see.
Brisbane Lions (7-4) – No one wants to concede the first five goals of a game, but how you respond to it if you do is the mark of a maturing team. Only 17 more goals in the match after that, Brisbane kicked 12 of those and beat a side they know they’re better than.
Carlton Blues (1-10) – If you’re looking for a positive then a strong game by Matthew Kreuzer featuring 32 hitouts, 22 disposals and a goal is it. Really scraping the barrel beyond that, though.
Collingwood Magpies (8-3) – Scott Pendlebury had a team-high 29 disposals, match-high eight tackles and equal-team-best two goals this week. He’s still got it.
Essendon Bombers (5-6) – Only one win (and percentage) out of the eight, but they really don’t feel like much of a threat at the moment. Got the win this week but it wasn’t nearly emphatic enough to suggest they’re making progress.
Fremantle Dockers (6-5) – Ironically got one of their more impressive wins of the season and yet fell out of the eight due to the machinations of the ladder. Rough luck!
Geelong Cats (10-1) – It’s telling of their development in 2019 that someone like Joel Selwood can have a relatively limited impact on the game, but they still win comfortably enough.
Gold Coast Suns (3-8) – There’s been a bit of talk this season about the Suns making progress, and securing signatures like those of Peter Wright and Ben Ainsworth during the week is definitely a win. Still, Round 11 was a reminder that they face a massive uphill battle even just to be a mid-table side.
GWS Giants (8-3) – Drew some criticism for a small crowd against the Suns – not sure what anyone reasonably expects. Few fans are going to be so rusted on to attend every match, and those who pick and choose will pick a game that actually promises something.
Hawthorn Hawks (5-6) – The talk around 30-year-old Isaac Smith being targetted by the Bulldogs came in the same week as Alastair Clarkson said his club is ‘in the middle of a phase’ of building towards being a contender. Coincidence or no?
Melbourne Demons (3-8) – This is the only club in the AFL who could kick 1.8 in the final quarter to lose by two points a match where they were in the lead for all but five and a half minutes.
North Melbourne Kangaroos (4-7) Cam Zurhaar had kicked at least one goal in seven consecutive games coming into this week. Couldn’t maintain the streak against Richmond, so he decided to lay 11 tackles instead. Love it.
Port Adelaide Power (6-5) – Is Xavier Duursma a dark horse for the rising star? Sam Walsh has a bigger profile, Sydney Stack has captured fan attention, but Duursma just keeps churning out impressive performances with surprising regularity, a bit like Callum Mills a few years ago.
Richmond Tigers (7-4) – As much as they’ve handled their injury crisis well, it’s still going to see them come out a bit flat every now and then, and this was one of those weeks. The bye will do them a world of good. Still a major top four threat.
St Kilda Saints (5-6) – Rotten luck that a week where the coach and several players fall ill on gameday also happens to be the week where you’re flying your players to China. A poor performance was exactly what you’d expect out of that combination.
Sydney Swans (3-8) – Not going to threaten finals, but they have quietly worked themselves into some consistent and competitive form over the past few weeks. No idea why John Longmire wouldn’t want to coach them in 2020.
West Coast Eagles (8-3) – Haven’t really hit top form very often this year and you’d say their percentage compared to other top four teams confirms that. Still, they’ve managed to get to 8-3, and are every chance of going back-to-back if they find another gear in the next three months.
Western Bulldogs (4-7) – He won’t come away from it with too many fond memories but it was great to see Ryan Gardner get his first crack at AFL level. May he achieve just as much for the Dogs as the last key defender they picked up from the Cats who had been delisted without playing a game.